Don Lehman

The Relatively Peaceful Role of a Radio Operator

Profilers: Henry Chang, Angelica Harris, Zak Harris

In this abridged video of the interview, Don shared his experience prior to, during, and after the war when he served as a radio relay and carrier operator. Don had a relatively peaceful role during the war, which was reflected in the lighthearted way he talked about his experiences.

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Most of my time—lets see I served from May of ’68 till June of 1970. I was with the First Infantry Division 121st Signal Battalion. I was in both A company and C company. A company was stationed just outside of benoit. About thirty minutes north of Saigon. When I went to C company we went a little bit further so we were about an hour north of Saigon. Tinbin was the little village that for whatever reason the base surrounded.

My job—the nomenclature was MOS was 31 M 20 which was radio relay and carrier operator and when I was in basic they all joked that I was gonna be carrying the radio with the antenna on it that says shoot me but what I did was I provided phone communication from division headquarters to the battalion command post so it would be where it was broadcasted over UHF but the people were able to pick up a phone and it would ring at division headquarters or battalion command post. So the smallest unit I would support would be a battalion and when we went out in the field it was not so much like Skipper and any of the infantry people. I would go out in the field and be the battalion command post. We’d be there in the center of it with a thirty foot sectional antenna and we’d have a company always there, there would be mortars there, at night they’d bring two more companies of infantry, there would be a platoon of armored tanks. So it was not like going out there where you were there.

There were a few times when we had fire come in, we always had rockets coming in. They technically tried to aim at the antenna but they never got the antenna. So the equipment we used was all western electric stuff; it was probably telephone equipment that the United States state side used during World War 2 and then it would be refurbished. So the phone company basically gave up the system in the ‘50’s but we were still using it in Vietnam in the ‘70s. We would have about 30 transceivers broadcasting all these things back and forth, there would be at least always about 5 base camps or battalion command posts that it would go out to.

I never personally got into any combat where I was out there out in the brush or anything. At the beginning of my term I got there right after the initial Tet offensive in ’68—May. The brunt of it was finished about 2 days after I arrived there. And then when I left which was almost 2 years later I was with the Americal Division at the northern end of south Vietnam on the coast with a beach and everything nearby that you could go to on your off time and I served a larger area then I left from there. I would go out in the field, we’d have to pull guard duty around our section of the perimeter. There were the 155 howitzer cannons right next to us so when I got there originally I couldn’t sleep at all because of these cannons going off but when I left I couldn’t sleep at all because there was no noise going off.

What was the scariest thing you ever faced in Vietnam?

The funniness in that part is, I think the most I was scared was the first time I was there when they opened up the airplane door the humidity just hits you like somebody throwing a fist at you. I realized I was there and who knew what was gonna happen. By the time I climbed down the plane and started going through there for the most part I put it out.

At my first location a rocket had come in a couple days before me and killed several people that were in line there so they no longer had formation in the morning after that. I think that and then the other time was when we went out into the field to the battalion command post because then we were closer to all the fighting and everything. When I was at the base camps you would occasionally get the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong trying to sneak through all the concertina wire. There would be about 4 Buy furacin rows of concertina wire going through each separated and each one would be higher and higher. There would be hand grenades hanging on all the barbs in there so hopefully if they come through they would knock something and the grenade would go off but most of them got good enough where they could just slide through without doing anything there and then they would run havoc there. But I think fortunately I never had any of them that really came into our area. We would hear ‘em on the radio where the guy would be running all over the place, we knew he was there, and it was almost comical because he was always over here, over there and they were all chasing him but never find him and he would run some havoc then hightail it out.

There was only one guy that I really personally knew that I was good friends with that was killed while I was there and he was wrong place wrong time. They sent a rocket in at the base camp and our barracks were I don’t know maybe 300 yards from where the bunker was for all the transmitters. So he was walking across this ravine, this little bridge that was set up and a rocket came and landed right at his foot so there was really nothing left of him from everything I heard and stuff.

Other than any changes for me personally I know for a lot of the Vietnam vets it really affected them a lot. I would say when I was going to college beforehand I was probably more serious in some respects and just after coming through this I just looked at life a little bit differently. Some things I would take a little more seriously but I just realized that its all, you know stuff happens, and leave it at that and not worry about things so much. Probably the most comical thing, of course I don’t think bobby would say that, was after Vietnam after we got married, I could sleep through all the noise in the world but any quiet noise would just jar me and would just kinda jump. I was working nights at the time and you were working day times so she came over to give me a quiet kiss goodbye and it startled me so much I came out starting to swing at her.


Were you drafted into the war?

Yes and no. I was drafted; I was before the lottery system. So I knew it was probably a good chance, I wasn’t doing all that well in college at the time so I knew I would probably lose my student deferment. So I tried to join the navy reserves; they were really popular to get into and everybody wanted to get in to it. I think I had—I don’t remember exact dates but I finally was accepted I had a report to date of like November 15th to report to the Navy reserves. At that time they were in Van Nuys I think they are now out here in Pt. Magoo. Then about 2 days after I got that letter I got another letter saying “greetings” I need to report to the
Selective Service board on November 7th and I started making phone calls and going everywhere I could to see if I could get entered into the Navy Reserves early and they all just said “sorry Charlie.” I was drafted. I served a little over 2 years and what happened was when we were in what we call zero week in basic training when they do all your testing before basic training. They gave us a couple options, if we wanted to join the regular navy at that time they would guarantee us an MOS, a job that you might like better than what they would select you and it wouldn’t have to be infantry and all that stuff. So I looked at those jobs that they were offering and this really sounded interesting so I did that. Having that MOS pretty much guaranteed you to go to Vietnam which they don’t bother to tell you in that point in time. I’ve looked at Vietnam as… I lived through it, I didn’t have any major problems or things, so I looked at it as a learning experience and just let it go with that and made the best out of it.

Tours are normally one year but if you extend your tour what they started doing near the end of the war when I was there was if when you rotated out of Vietnam if you’re within 6 months of the end of your enlistment then you would be rotated out of the army and you would be an inactive reserve and you wouldn’t have to go to meetings. I felt for at least for me at the time that it was safe enough that I could extend my tour in Vietnam and then get out of having to serve in the military in the state side. I had a bed every night so it wasn’t where I was sleeping out there anywhere. Your day was filled listening to other people’s conversations. You would be in this big bunker where all of our radios were and each radio could handle up to I believe it was 6 conversations, 6 telephone calls at a time. So the carrier unit was these things that would take all 6 telephone conversations and put it so it could be broadcasted in a coaxel cable and then it would go over the airwaves back down and reverse. It was not a real automated system so you really had to listen in, keep an eye, make sure the signals was good and everybody could hear okay otherwise you’d be getting some officers calling you up complaining that they cant hear anybody on the phone calls.

Did you get to meet any of the people of South Vietnam and get to know any of them?

Not really. I think the people that were more infantry probably to some extent got to meet them. The only ones I met is, they had the KP staff, the people that cleaned up the kitchens and stuff after you, they used South Vietnamese. All of our barracks were cleaned by South Vietnamese. We usually hired women… South Vietnamese women would clean our laundry. What started out like these lovely white pants here, I think I had white socks—they would be beige by the time they were done because they didn’t use washing machines, they’d just go wash it in the local river. You didn’t have to worry about it being OD because it was OD after 2 washes. If you were on base camp they had the army operated out of Saigon and Denang, they operated TV stations so there was actual TV you could watch and there was a radio station which… similar to Good Morning America I guess you could say. And different USO troop shows came over. A friend of my parents came by, they were doing a show one time there and they invited me to come to a show that they were doing. It was at another part of the base that I was on. Probably a humorous section was all the barracks for this area—we were all in officers barracks area—but all the bunkers you would run to if incoming rockets were coming in were pretty close to all the barracks. At night there really wasn’t a lot of light so you really had to be careful about falling into the bunkers there. I’m walking and he says stay behind me… so I’m walking and I walked off and fell into the entrance of this bunker and lost my cap in there but didn’t worry about it. Then the next morning they thought it was kinda interesting they found an officer’s cap and an enlisted cap in the bunker down there at night. So some officer also fell down there and couldn’t figure it out. I found out from our friends that were doing the show.

Bobbie (Don’s wife) was telling us about your experience after you came back and how you were received after the war?

Well most people didn’t want to know or care or anything and most of the veterans if they were in uniform were kinda scorned and stuff. It’s not like now days where the veterans coming home in the military. So most of the veterans kept to themselves. And I think most veterans of war don’t talk much about it. I would say there is a whole lot more veterans than me that had not as good of an experience. When you’re out there having to do hand to hand combat. When you’re out there having to be shooting more and everything. I think I was once when I was on guard duty we were involved in a firefight but I have no idea if I hit anybody, we never saw anything. It probably could have just conceivably somebody saw something, shot something then once one person started shooting along the perimeter of the base then just everybody there was shooting. I have no idea and I probably have never shot anybody there but for the veterans that were out there and shooting and being close it’s a whole other experience knowing that you have killed. Even though its technically legal and its all part of war its still hard on the people and those type I know most of them don’t want to talk and stuff. And I’ve never really talked a whole lot. There’s been a few people that have asked that I have given short responses to and stuff. I know my father who was in the navy during World War 2 he never ever once said anything to me about the experiences in the war.

It didn’t bother me about people the way they kinda scorned the veterans and stuff.

Bobbie: I don’t think it bothered you until after the people came back from Desert Storm and people received them so well. We’d be in coffee shops and stuff and people would go up to people. Like at airports people would offer Desert Storm people their seat on a plane, or bring them a cup of coffee or say thank you. You would say things like “that never happened to me when I came back, we never got a thank you, we never got offered a cup of coffee.”

I think now days people are beginning to thank the Vietnam veterans when they know it and stuff but you don’t see it. I know the church we used to belong to in Santa Clarita, on the closest Sunday to Veteran’s day they would have all the veterans stand up and they would do a slide presentation of them when they were in the army or navy or whatever and then now.

Bobbie: But it was almost like they had to pull teeth of the Vietnam veterans to bring a picture of themselves. People would bring in pictures of their grandfathers who served in WWII. And people who had been in Desert Storm willingly came up and gave their pictures or wore something that day at church to show that they had been part of that where as the Vietnam veterans were kinda like ehh… its past.

It was just because of the scorn then and people not wanting. Through all of that I think most Vietnam veterans want to just forget it cause I think a lot of people look at the Vietnam conflict as more of a sore spot in American history than a good spot.


How was your transition after the war coming back to the United States? Was it kinda gradual or was it like day and night?

For me it was kinda like both. It was a thrill to be back and be over with all that but it was still kind of a transition because you are moving from a very regimented time of your life to more just freedom part of yourself. Since I didn’t have any of the heavy conflict or the heavy emotional stuff that a lot of people out of Vietnam had it made it easier for me. I think it was just getting used to civilian life again. I came back in June I believe it was and I decided to go back to college I decided to change my major so I started getting that going and moving in that direction. I was able to pick up with friends that I had beforehand and stuff and do things. I think it was an easy transition. It probably took a few months just to get totally back immersed into a civilian lifestyle.

Bobbie: You had a fairly strong support group though even when you were in Vietnam as far as your parents and friends writing you, sending you care packages, things like that. So that’s a whole different story.

I had a lot of friends that wrote to me. Of course my mother wrote I think every week. My dad would write about every other week or two weeks. My sister wrote about once a month I think it was. But then I’d have friends that would write me about every other month I think it was.

They’d send me popcorn, I loved popcorn.

Bobbie: Tell the popcorn story! Was it already popped or did you have to pop it?

We had to pop it. I would get either butter or lard from the kitchen and I had an electric popcorn popper that worked for a while then I’d go from there.

Bobbie: What about the stories you told me about unplugging the electricity so you could use it to pop the popcorn?

There is only so much electricity in the barracks. To show you how easy we had it compared to some others, we actually even had a refrigerator there in our barracks that you’d keep mostly soda pop but also you could buy 3.2 beer or something—it was more water than it was beer—and black label, yeah, none of the good stuff. So we would get that. Since there was not a whole lot a places to buy things at the PX. There would be a PX there so I saved my money—put a good portion of it home, and I was able to buy a car when I got out, and I think I bought a stereo system and I had a small radio there. But this is all stuff that I bought and had it shipped home, I didn’t have it in Vietnam.

Then in the village, there was a portion of the village that you could go in to, and that’s where you could get the good drinks. There was one place that they had that—if the army was cooking French fries they were dehydrated potatoes pressed in to French fries so they were really nasty stuff. Then you would go in to the village and there was a place they would have Pepsi in a bottle and they were making real French fries, real potatoes that they’d cut up and I don’t know where they got them. Then also I remember most was they bought as much as they could locally from the Vietnamese for eating at the barracks. They did not have a lot of cattle, we had a lot of chicken. At times we would have chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Bobbie: Did they have goats? Did you eat goat meat at all?

Nah I don’t think… there was goats but the army wouldn’t buy the goats for us.

I wouldn’t wish a war experience on anybody. Either that one or any of ‘em. War is war. Its not fun. It was an experience for me that’s part of my personality. The same thing for Skipper and for anybody that has gone in to the army or any military service that did have to serve during a war time. Its an experience that will effect you and even for those that had a rough experience, that had a rough time, and had trouble coming back and when they finally sort things out its still there in them and its still part of their personality. I don’t think there’s anybody that no matter where they served during a war time that is totally the same person before as after. Since I got through okay I looked at it and says, it is what it is, I came through so it was meant to be to be in the army instead of the navy reserves. For most of it right now I rarely think about it now I would say. Every once in a while I will but for the most part I don’t think about it too much and just continue to live on.

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Chuck Clayton

31 Mike 20
Fort Gordon Ga. 1974

Good read!